Traditional artist Mai Tuyet Hoa and her troupe Xam Ha Thanh have released their first album of xẩm (blind busker's singing). She has spent more than 20 years performing and studying xam singing.
Hoa is seen as one of successors of the late master singer Ha Thi Cau.
Nguyen Manh Ha interviews Hoa about preserving and developing xam singing.
Could you tell how the album was made?
At first, we spent our money to make the album. We have a weekly performance at King Le Temple on Le Thai To Street. Hoan Kiem District provides us with a small amount of money. Plus, we earn from VND200,000 to 900,000 (US$9 to 40) for each performance.
We intended to use this income to make the album but it was not enough. So we contributed our own money.
When we finished the album we received financial support from Thien Tam Fund. We will co-operate with this fund and the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Ninh Binh Province to organise a national xam singing festival and hold xam singing classes in the province.
You have foreign students who are learning xam. What can you tell us about these students?
When foreigners come to Vietnam to learn xam singing they study hard. Folk music is a vast treasure. It is difficult to get to know xam in a short time.
In one month, students can start to understand what xam is. Most of them learn to sing and play the nhi (two-string fiddle).
I have a French student who plays piano well. He has learned nhi and xam singing in one and a half years. He doesn’t work in Hanoi anymore and has gone back France temporarily. He has asked me for more pieces to practise at home.
Another student of mine is an American girl. She is student at Yale University and she knows violin. She spent a month studying with me and now I continue to teach her online.
Do you also train Vietnamese students?
Yes, we focus on art students such as those learning cheo (traditional opera). We really want them to keep the traditional arts alive, but is is a difficult mission because xam cannot help them to survive. They still have to earn money through their other work.
It is not easy for them to pursue xam singing in the long term because they do not see a future in it. I myself don’t know how the folk genre will develop in the future. But my troupe and I will try our best to keep it going.
Do you remember the first and the last meetings you had with late master singer Ha Thi Cau?
One of the last times I saw her I was making a film about her for Radio the Voice of Viet Nam. At that time, she was in good health. Luckily, the weather was very nice while we were filming. Right when we finished it began to rain.
Before the film crew left, the artisan held my hand for a long time and told me: “You should try.” She couldn't say it clearly but I understood her thought. She wanted me to do something to preserve xam singing, to which she had devoted her whole life.
I felt uneasy about her words. The next time I visited her she was weak and couldn't say anything more.
The first time I met Cau was with the artist Thao Giang and Professor Nguyen Thuyet Phong. It was about 20 years ago. At that time, I studied her songs through tapes and I went to meet the veteran artist to get materials for my thesis.
I met her and we talked and sang together. She liked it very much because for a long time she did not sing.
Why did you want to learn xam singing when you were studying traditional instruments at the Viet Nam Academy of Music?
I used to work at Viet Nam Institute for Musicology and listen to a lot of old music and songs. When Cau came to the institute to record I was an intern there.
I was assigned to listen to the tapes and discs and write down the notes and lyrics of different traditional genres such as xam, ca tru (ceremonial singing), quan ho (love duet) and xoan singing. I found xam the most suitable because I studied the nhi instrument.
The institute's director Dang Hoanh Loan wanted all the staff to be able to perform some of the songs. And I choose a xam song to practice. It was fate because a traditional instrument student like me would normally perform in an art troupe. But from my second year of college I was invited to work at the institute.